The tale of the three Magi gets another extreme arthouse makeover in Belgian helmer Gust Van den Berghe’s audacious film-school graduation project “Little Baby Jesus of Flandr.” Pic’s black-and-white lensing, mixture of contempo and traditional elements, and stark landscapes at first strongly recall Albert Serra’s “Birdsong,” though this sure-to-be divisive religious parable, performed by theater thesps with Down syndrome, is in many ways closer in spirit (pun intended) to Italian neorealism. Adventurous fests will want to follow this potential arthouse star, but ticketbuyers will not flock as readily.
Inspired by a 1924 play by Flemish scribe Felix Timmermans, pic recounts the experiences of three contempo beggars whose midwinter journey mirrors that of the three kings on their way to Bethlehem. Some viewers will buy into the story’s mystical side, finding revealing depths in its apparent simplicity and at times otherworldly beauty, while others will find it hard to get over some of the helmer’s calculated — or at least attention-grabbing — choices (actors with Down syndrome, an 85-year-old text, black-and-white shooting).
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“Little Baby Jesus” opens with an impressive pan of a Brueghel-esque winter landscape, with a voiceover announcing, “It isn’t easy being a human being, especially in winter.” Pic then introduces vagabond protags Schrobberbeeck (Peter Janssens), with a goatee; bespectacled Pitje Vogel (Paul Mertens), who wears a bowler hat and a bowtie; and angel-faced, inquisitive Suskewiet (Jelle Palmaerts).
Around Christmas, the trio, wearing crowns cut out of paper and guided by a staff mounted with a cardboard star, get lost in the woods and stumble upon the Holy Family in a shack. They promptly shower them with gifts, including, in one of the film’s numerous droll moments, some crumpled cigarettes (for when the Christ child’s “grown up”).
However, over the course of two subsequent Christmases (pic is divided into three parts, each set during Christmas), the midwinter material needs and the arrival of the devil (Jan Goris) and his Spanish-speaking temptress (Georgina Del Carmen Teunissen) start to gnaw at the mendicants’ spiritual conversion.
Though slightly more narrative-driven than “Birdsong,” this tale of the three kings finally works because the rookie helmer has retained much of Timmermans’ plebeian spirituality, which favors the transcendental and poetic over any dogmatic, intellectual or directly logical approach.
Van den Berghe contrasts old and new elements, using Timmermans-era dialogue (poorly conveyed in the English subtitles) and surface noise as part of the score, while also deploying contempo props such as sunglassesto create a timeless whole. More importantly, he supplements his thin smear of a plot with some arresting widescreen compositions (though contrasts and contours were not always clear at digital projection caught). A view of the trio on swings suspended from two tall trees is mesmerizing, as is a sequence shot from the beach showing a series of dinghies, each mounted with a gigantic crucifix, buoying in the surf.
Overall approach evokes celebrated Italian style, recalling Pasolini’s poetry and theme of the sacredness of the common people, as well as some of the more operatic aspects of Fellini’s work, blending with a painterly vein that’s decidedly Flemish.
Though bound to be seen by some as stunt casting, the use of mentally disabled actors for all parts except those of Jesus and the devil does highlight the ordinariness of the characters and works well in pic’s context.
Per producer Tomas Leyers, the odd-looking “Flandr” of the English-language title is a medieval Dutch word for the region now referred to as “Flanders.”